For the small number of vulture lovers the world over, good news comes from Sindh.
In June 2009, a new “vulture restaurant” opened to provide safe food for the endangered birds — no reservations needed, but it’s always a fierce fight for the flesh.
Similar vulture ventures have already been successful inSouth Africa,IndiaandNepal, where one region in which a restaurant started to provide vultures with clean carcasses saw a doubling of nesting pairs in just two years, according to Bird Conservation Nepal.
Alas, uplifting news is rare in the vulture world: the big picture is that the birds, commonly portrayed as harbingers of death, are themselves facing doom, particularly in the eastern hemisphere.
Three species in South and Southeast Asia were placed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s critically endangered list 10 years ago — to little effect. The oriental white-backed vulture population has declined a catastrophic 99.9% in the past 15 years; once estimated at 40 million, the global number now sits below 11,000. The long-billed and the slender-billed vulture populations have also fallen nearly 97%, according to a 2007 study published in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society.
Though the West’s vulture populations have not been hit as hard, the case of the quickly disappearing vultures is an alarming example of how difficult it can be for animals to find their place in our modern world. The advent of 20th century farming replaced wild herd animals, whose carcasses are the staple diet of vultures around the world, with heavily medicated livestock.
Diclofenac, a frequently administered anti-inflammatory veterinary painkiller comparable to ibuprofen, has proven to be particularly deadly to the vultures that ingest it secondhand. Though the birds by design have “very strong stomach fluids” that digest even the nastiest of pathogens, this particular drug has proven too much. After populations’ decreasing numbers were first noted in the 1980s, it was found that diclofenac residue in livestock carcasses was causing kidney failure and visceral gout in the birds.
Though the Indian and Nepalese governments banned diclofenac five years ago after its fatal effect on vultures was discovered in a 2004 study led by the Peregrine Fund, manufacturers like Pakistan’s Star Labs and Brazil’s Ouro Fino continue to push the drug in Africa, where vultures are likely to suffer the same fate as their Asian counterparts, says Chris Bowden of the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds.
Vulture restaurants may be the birds’ best immediate hope. At the Sindh facility, veterinary staffers are trained to inspect and purchase safe meat, usually from cattle and goats, from local farmers. Some vulture restaurants inIndiaalso allow meat drop-offs, making it easier for farmers to dispose of carcasses. Though most restaurants are operating in Asia, there are also a few others inAfrica. Anywhere from five to 100 vultures may descend in a day at South Africa’s Camp Jambulani vulture restaurant.
Natural Habit Being Encroached
Unfortunately, finding a wholesome meal isn’t vultures’ only problem these days. Their natural habitat of wooded areas is continually being encroached upon as more trees are being cut down to make way for villages and cities, and the endangered vultures are regularly killed in aircraft collisions. And that’s not only bad news for the birds.
Countries where vultures are most threatened, such as Nepal, India and Pakistan, rely heavily on vultures for a kind of natural maid service: as they clear out dead animals, the risk of disease is also reduced.
Dangerous wild-dog packs that feed on dead livestock have also flourished without competition from the birds, leading to a new surge of rabies, particularly in Mumbai. People don’t realize what a key role vultures play in the ecosystem. They prevent disease and recycle.
North America’s turkey vultures don’t seem as susceptible, however, reports a 2008 study in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. The continent’s growing number of 25 million turkey and black vultures don’t yet show significant signs of decline.
Vulture Awareness Day
On Sept. 5 — the first annual International Vulture Awareness Day — zoos and bird societies around the globe will sponsor educational tours and flight demonstrations to get the word out about the plight of the vultures.
Unlike blue whales, polar bears and other beloved species in danger of extinction, it may be harder to rally folks to save these prickly feathered birds with bumpy, bald heads, portly physiques and a tendency to be knee-deep in rotting flesh. People look at vultures and see an ugly bird.
We will try to change attitudes and raise awareness of these scavengers in the ecosystem.
And vultures — despite their morbid reputation — will certainly respond warmly to human assistance. As the vulture barbershop quartet sings to Mowgli in Disney’s The Jungle Book, “We’re your friends to the bitter ends … Who’s always eager to extend a friendly claw?”
In Namibia in July 2013, roughly 500 vultures died after they ate the pesticide-laced carcass of an elephant that had been killed by poachers. It was an example of one poaching technique in Africa that seems to be on the rise: the poisoning of vultures so that authorities won’t be alerted to the location of the crime.
The overhead circling of vultures has long been used to locate lost or dead livestock. In the same way, vultures help law enforcement officers zero in on poachers.
With their keen eyesight and distinctive vantage point, vultures can locate an elephant carcass within 30 minutes of the animal’s death. It can take 45 to 70 minutes for the most skilled poachers to hack off two elephant tusks, and when vultures gather overhead rangers can get that much closer to apprehending the perpetrators. By poisoning a carcass and killing vultures en masse, poachers are trying to ensure that next time around there will be fewer of them to contend with.
Vulture conservationists began to take particular note of this development in July 2012, when an elephant was poached in Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe and 191 vultures were found scattered around the carcass, poisoned. Since then, six more cases of these poisonings have been reported. All told, some 1,700 vultures died.
If vultures were merely the ancillary damage of poaching, it would be bad enough. But these birds are also dying from eating the poisoned carcasses of livestock that have been baited to kill predators, like lions, leopards and hyenas, in retaliation for killing livestock. Vultures, too, are being poisoned for their body parts, which are used in traditional medicine and for good luck.
What’s worrisome is that of the nine main species of vultures in Africa, four are endangered and three more are listed as vulnerable by the authoritative Red List of Threatened Species maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Vultures are among the longest-living birds, surviving up to 30 years in the wild. They reproduce very slowly, reaching sexual maturity at 5 to 7 years of age on average. They generally produce one chick every one to two years. This reproductive strategy worked well, until the poisonings.
While the use of traditional poisons to kill animals is age-old, the intensive use of highly toxic agricultural pesticides is not. Ask anyone involved in anti-poaching efforts in Africa and they will tell you that one method of choice for killing wildlife today is agricultural pesticides because they are available, cheap, effective and silent.
Elephants and rhinos are also being killed by the same poisons that poachers use to kill vultures. These pesticides are poured into water holes and onto salt licks, sprinkled over pachyderm delicacies such as watermelons or pumpkins, or used to coat the tips of arrows. The carcasses of these huge animals can then poison the next round of consumers, the scavengers.
The pesticides most commonly used include carbofuran and aldicarb. In the United States, Canada and the European Union, those pesticides are either banned, or their use is severely restricted. But throughout rural Africa you can walk into many of the numerous small shops selling agricultural products and walk out with enough poison to kill an elephant in perhaps 30 minutes, or a human being more quickly.
The commercialization of the trade in vulture parts — in particular their heads, which are valued as fetishes — is worsening the problem. Vultures are associated with clairvoyance. Businessmen sometimes sprinkle a powder of vulture parts around their businesses to improve profits. These powders can also be blown into the air to recall a lost lover.
This trade, especially in West African countries, South Africa and Tanzania, has led to an increase in vulture killings, though it is difficult to come up with a hard number. In particular, the demand for vulture parts in Nigeria is pushing many species of the bird toward extinction there.
Scientists from The Peregrine Fund and their collaborators throughout Africa used to spend their time studying the unique habits of vultures; these days they monitor their imminent extinction. These birds play an important role in the ecosystems where they live. At first glance, many might consider vultures a “disgusting bird,” as Darwin did. But by eating carrion, vultures eliminate rotting carcasses that might otherwise become factories for diseases, and which could have consequences for human health.
More stringent regulation and control over the distribution of pesticides, and prosecutions for those who use pesticides to poison wildlife, are critical in many African nations if this problem is to be brought under control. Money and expertise to fight the new wave of elephant and rhino poaching has been pledged by Western nations. But if we don’t also devote effort and money to saving Africa’s vultures, can we really expect that the war on poaching will ever be won?
Darcy L. Ogada, a wildlife biologist, is assistant director of Africa programs for The Peregrine Fund, which focuses on protecting birds of prey worldwide.